Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie. Vanna Brown, Azteca Style. 1990. Photocollage, 23 9⁄16 × 30" (59.8 × 76.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Helen Kornblum in honor of Roxana Marcoci. © 2022 Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie

Over the past 50 years, the art-historical canon has come under an intense and overdue critique. Thanks to a sustained engagement with the pioneering contributions of women artists, its ideological underpinnings—masculinist, male, European—have been highlighted and scrutinized, and a number of urgent questions have emerged: How do we go about unsettling established art-historical narratives? Unfixing the canon? Activating new readings? Researching counterhistories? Expressing transnational synchronicities? Constructing resistance?

The discourse was forever changed by Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” which was published in ARTnews as part of the special issue “Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists, and Art History.” Nochlin questioned the validity of the very idea of greatness—of the stand-alone genius associated with male artists and masterpieces. She declined to refute the question in the essay’s title by proposing a series of equally great women artists, which would only reinforce existing hierarchies; rather, she meticulously identified the gender inequities—some obvious, some coded—embedded in the production and reception of art: in art academies, systems of patronage, ownership, museum collections and exhibitions, and the clichéd myth of the master.1 Because of the rich scholarship and theories that emerged in response to Nochlin’s landmark argument, we now understand that the construction of a more scopic, inclusive, and transnational art history requires envisioning nonbinary models of cultural production, sexuality, gender performativity, interconnectedness, and collective intelligence.

What is a feminist picture? The category of “woman” has never been all-inclusive in the fight for societal change; even the movement to foster women’s creativity has failed to include all women. In Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), the social activist and cultural scholar bell hooks made a stark critique of mainstream first- and second-wave feminist narratives, pointing out their disregard for issues of race and class and their sidelining of women of color.2 Other, more diverse forms of feminism have positioned themselves in opposition to hegemonic liberal feminism rather than as a part of it, amplifying and making visible the struggle against the forms of marginalization and dispossession that are endemic in white-supremacist society. The concept of intersectionality, developed at the end of the 1980s by the law professor and social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, provides a theoretical framework for understanding the ways in which social categorizations create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination.3 The imperious structure of patriarchy cannot be separated from other forms of oppression, including racism, heteronormativity, slavery, colonialism, and restrictions of citizenship. African-diasporic, queer, and postcolonial/Indigenous feminists have brought a change of perspective, calling for new critical appraisals of the specifics of gender politics within asymmetrical systems of power.4

Lorna Simpson. Details (detail). 1996

Lorna Simpson. Details (detail). 1996

Carrie Mae Weems. Untitled (Woman and daughter with makeup), from The Kitchen Table Series. 1990

Carrie Mae Weems. Untitled (Woman and daughter with makeup), from The Kitchen Table Series. 1990

Carrie Mae Weems has placed Black women at the front of her interrogation of the historical complexities and structural consequences of unchecked power. In both her advocacy and her compelling artistic practice—in still and moving images, performance, and verse work—she has been a force of radical transformation; often using herself as a protagonist, she has reconstructed the heritage of African American cultural identity from a feminist African-diasporic perspective. In The Kitchen Table Series (1990), a group of 14 panels of text and 20 pictures, Weems makes her kitchen a setting for explorations of beauty, sexuality, and selfhood. Untitled (Man Smoking) shows the artist drinking and playing cards with a man. An image of Malcolm X looms large on the wall behind them, with his raised, clenched fist—a Black Power symbol of resistance and unity—bringing a political dimension to this intimate scene. In Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Makeup) Weems applies makeup in front of a mirror while a young girl, in front of another mirror, puts on lipstick and looks at her own reflection. The two women enact beauty in a synchronized performance, through posing, mirroring, and self-empowerment. “Their self-gazing,” as the literary historian and theorist Salamishah Tillet has noted, “is a reparative act—an act of care, and a declaration of black womanhood, visibility, and black beauty.”5 What is visible in this image is both the power of Black interiority and the grace with which it is expressed.

The production, circulation, and presentation of images has been at the center of Louise Lawler’s sustained feminist analysis of power structures since the 1970s. As part of the Pictures Generation—a loosely knit group of artists who used mass media strategies to critically examine the functions and codes of representation—Lawler took photographs of other artists’ works in private collections, museums, storage spaces, and auction houses, subtly commenting on the sociological use and value of art. Lawler’s work draws on reception theory, which acknowledges that the meaning of an artwork shifts and morphs depending on who looks at it and the context of its display. In Sappho and Patriarch (1984), two sculptures are seen in close proximity, accompanied by a text panel that reads, “Is it the work, the location, or the stereotype that is the institution?” The image prompts us to think about the politics of space—about the canonical values and imbalances of power reinforced by museological display. Lawler reckons with the modes of address by which art seeks a rapport with its audiences and asks us to consider the art institution as a space of ideological construction, where identities and gender roles are constantly in play.

The intellectual history of mass media (like that of modern art) is grounded in the xenophobic and colonialist ideologies that have long informed Western knowledge production, so that Native Americans are now faced with the prospect of having to reclaim both their stolen land and their Indigenous identity. The artist Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, a member of the Diné, Semiole, and Muscogee Nations, shares with the Pictures Generation an interest in the way images circulate in popular culture, using reproducible technologies and strategies of appropriation to reframe ethnographic clichés. Vanna Brown, Azteca Style (1990), a photocollage from her Native Programming series, features a Hollywood image of an actress in Native American costume set into the screen of a Philco television set. The work’s title refers to Vanna White, the Wheel of Fortune star, here with her name—and, in this case, her ethnic signifier—altered; the television literally, as well as critically, reframes the kitsch portrayal of “Indianness.” Wary of the fixities of identity politics, Tsinhnahjinnie reclaims and liberates images of Native Americans from the fictions at the heart of the mass media industry.

Louise Lawler. Sappho and Patriarch (“Is it the work, the location, or the stereotype that is the institution?”). 1984

Louise Lawler. Sappho and Patriarch (“Is it the work, the location, or the stereotype that is the institution?”). 1984

Cara Romero. Wakeah. 2018

Cara Romero. Wakeah. 2018

When Native people explore particular artistic tools and techniques, such as photography, they indigenize these mediums, recruiting them as allies in the fight for sovereignty.6 The art historian Veronica Passalacqua has noted that the contemporary art of First Nations “is a genre unto its own”; its practice by Indigenous artists “has generated a sovereign space; a territory created, propagated, and continually mediated by Native artists, authors, and curators.”7 Cara Romero, a member of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation (a branch of the Southern Paiute) of the Mojave Desert, challenges paradigms of Native gender identity through oppositional models of representation, much as Tsinhnahjinnie has done. In Wakeah (2017), an early work in her ongoing First American Girl series, Romero portrays her friend Wakeah Jhane. A dancer and ledger artist (practicing the 19th-century art of drawing and painting scenes from battles and Native life on paper from accounting ledgers), Jhane is a member of the Comanche Nation and is also descended from the Blackfeet and Kiowa tribes. Her traditional decorated-buckskin dance regalia points to the specificity and diversity of Native cultures and regional handicrafts, and to the power of Native American women to define their own art. The diorama-style setting of the photograph evokes the ways in which photography has misappropriated Indigenous culture, often presenting its people as anthropological specimens. Romero discards the white European male gaze that has dominated the past century of photography, in the work of such photographers as Edward S. Curtis, whose 20-volume edition The North American Indian (1907–30) is an archive of staged pictures that reflect Western expectations of a so-called primitive culture. Romero’s Wakeah does the opposite: it presents an identity fashioned from her own values, cultural signs, symbols, and historical references. Rather than perpetuating the ethnocentric myth of a vanishing culture or a people as a vestige of the past, the image testifies to the stamina of contemporary Indigenous life and the hybrid possibilities of its resources, redefining Native American culture on the artist’s terms.

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with,” writes the feminist scholar Donna Haraway; “it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what worlds make worlds, what worlds make stories.”8 These stories—who tells them, about whom, through what lens—are relevant for our political futures, and to our creative ones. The body of work in Our Selves is a significant step toward conceiving more complex, relational worlds in which these stories matter, by artists who invite us to imagine a history of photography in which female perspective, camaraderie, and mentorship are taken seriously. Some of these artists, migrants across borders because of geopolitical circumstance, or simply restless wanderers, suggest mobility and migration to be a necessary part of feminist context; others propose Indigenous and diasporic—even double-diasporic—identities that resist totalizing dynamics and existing cultural narratives. The focused essays that follow this one offer possible routes of inquiry that attempt to redress history’s omissions, rethread the agency of women, and buttress the hard work of writing the stories of figures too often excluded.

Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists from Helen Kornblum

Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists from Helen Kornblum, organized by Roxana Marcoci, The David Dechman Senior Curator, with Dana Ostrander and Caitlin Ryan, Curatorial Assistants, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, is on view at MoMA from April 16 through October 2, 2022.

  1. Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” ARTNews, “Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists and Art History” issue, January 1971, 22–39.

  2. bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981).

  3. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1, article 8.

  4. An exhaustive survey of postcolonial and queer feminist theory—and foundational figures such as Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—exceeds the scope of this essay. Many recent publications propose new visual and narrative modalities, imagining different kinds of postcolonial, queer, and Black futurity. Among them are Jennifer Bajorek, Unfixed: Photography and Decolonial Imagination in West Africa (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2020); Tina M. Campt, A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2021); Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019); Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing, trans. Charlotte Mandell (South Pasadena, Calif.: Semiotext(e), 2020).

  5. Salamishah Tillet, “Around the Kitchen Table,” Aperture, Summer 2016, 54.

  6. Cara Romero, “Statement,”

  7. Veronica Passalacqua, “Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie,” in Lucy Lippard, ed., Path Breakers: The Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Arts (Indianapolis: Eiteljorg Museum; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 81.

  8. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 12.